Caged birds sing in Music For Galway’s midwinter festival

Captive – Music from the Abyss to run at Town Hall Theatre

THE NEW year might only be a couple of weeks old but it is already time for Galway’s first festival of 2016, as Music For Galway unveils its annual midwinter festival, which runs from Friday January 22 to Sunday 24th, at the Town Hall Theatre.

Entitled Captive – Music from the Abyss, it explores themes of captivity and imprisonment. “The theme is very topical,” observes Finghin Collins, Music For Galway’s artistic director. “What has dominated the news over the past year has been people fleeing Syria and the middle-East. There’s currently an Irish citizen captive in an Egyptian prison, Ibrahim Halawa. There are still people in Guantanamo Bay. While previous mid-winter festivals were dominated by music from the past, this year all the music is from the 20th and 21st century, so it is very much of today.”

With sponsorship from Insight @NUIG and MJ Conroy, the festival has also expanded beyond music to include the screening of an Oscar-winning documentary, a talk by distinguished human rights lawyer, William Schabas, and performances by actor Diarmuid de Faoite, with members of the American Decoda ensemble, straddling the mediums of theatre and chamber music.

Music from the Nazi prision camps

Owen Dalby.

The festival opens on Friday 22 with the contemporary piece Catch by Thomas Adès and performed by Decoda - Elizabeth Joe Roe (piano ), Owen Dalby (violin, pictured above ), Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir (cello ) and Carol McGonnell (clarinet ). Catch is a glittering, playful, almost jazzy work that requires the clarinettist not only to play acrobatics on her instrument but to flit around on and off-stage before she gets 'caught' by her colleagues.

Introducing a different element to the evening, world-renowned human rights lawyer and former head of the Irish Human Rights Centre at NUI Galway, Dr William Schabas, will give his thoughts on the subject of captivity with respect to artistic expression and creativity. Concluding the programme is one of the most iconic works of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written and premiered in the Görlitz prisoner-of-war-camp in 1941.

“During the war Messiaen was taken prisoner and sent to a POW camp in Silesia,” says Collins. "There he found himself with an upright piano, a clarinettist, a cellist, and a violinist. He wrote this piece for them about the Apocalypse. Messiaen was very religious, he was very deeply Catholic, and was inspired by the Biblical account of the apocalypse and angels announcing the end of time, which fit in with the whole mood of the world falling apart during that war, and all the desperate things that were happening. The piece is apocalyptic, and fiery, and soul-searching, and with soaring melodies on the cello and violin. It’s very moving, and very spiritual music and was his response to the situation he found himself in. That is the over-riding theme of the festival, how all these artists responded to captivity in their situations.”

Saturday night has a very different feel and opens with the screening of the beautiful Oscar-winning documentary The Lady in No 6. This truly uplifting film visits Alice Herz-Sommer, then aged 109, in her flat in London and looks back on a life which took her from the glittering stages of the concert halls of Europe to treading the squalid stage boards of Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. After the film, soprano Lynda Lee and pianist Finghin Collins play songs and music composed and performed in Theresienstadt. While performed under duress for Nazi propaganda purposes, for the prisoners this music often also became an element of comfort and the varied programme stretches from cabaret numbers to lullabies.

“Theresienstadt was a show camp,” explains Collins. “The Nazis made it look to the outside world that everything was hunky dory, they’d put on concerts there, and bring in the Red Cross, and pretend everyone was well looked after. Some of the songs we’ll hear were written by a woman called Ilse Weber. She was a poet but wrote these songs and sung them to the children in the camp orphanage; she eventually died with them in the gas chamber.

“The music from Theresienstadt is not all sad music, there is also some Berlin cabaret style music. The prisoners were doing their best to keep their spirits up. These pieces of music were only discovered in the last decade. I first heard them on a CD by Sophie von Otter. I really wanted to hear them again and am delighted there is now an opportunity for Galway audiences to hear them.”

A world and an Irish premiere

Dairmuid de Faoite

The closing event on Sunday at 3pm features both a world premiere and an Irish premiere - reflecting two very differing approaches to captivity. The world premiere, CTW, was commissioned by Music for Galway from the American composer Michel Galante and inspired by Oscar Wilde’s 'Ballad of Reading Gaol'. The Irish premiere is a tongue-in-cheek piece by Marc Neikrug - 'Death Row Memoirs of an Extraterrestrial', in which Diarmuid de Faoite (pictured above at the launch of the festival ) will explore the woes and predicaments of an alien trapped in a human body. Both works feature the De Coda group and both composers will be present to be interviewed by artistic director Finghin Collins prior to the performance of their piece.

“This is De Coda’s first visit to Ireland,” Collins reveals. “My connection is through clarinettist Carol McGonnell, who is from Dublin though she lives in NY. Carol’s husband is Michel Galante and we commissioned him to respond to 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', with a piece for actor and chamber group. Diarmuid de Faoite has pre-recorded excerpts from the poem and these have been mashed up and electronically altered through all sorts of processes. There is a film showing through it as well. It will be very theatrical and different. CTW were the initials of the prisoner whom Wilde was fascinated by and is the subject of the poem.

“Marc Neikrug is a very highly-regarded composer and De Coda will give the Irish premiere of 'Death Row Memoirs of an Extraterrestrial'. It’s a comedy, a light-hearted piece about an alien who finds himself captive inside a human body and he does dreadful things like fall in love with a woman and he kills her and eats her, it’s totally mad. That gives a bit of light-heartedness to the festival, we didn’t want it to be all doom and gloom and death camps, we wanted to show different aspects of the captivity theme.”

On the Saturday afternoon the doors of the Town Hall are open to the public for two hours from 2pm and audiences are invited to join the artists as they rehearse the pieces for the concerts ahead. “People loved that last year, it was our first time doing it and there was an amazing response,” Collins tells me. “People could wander in and wander out as they chose and we just carried on rehearsing. People can bring in their kids, or just come in and get a feel for the event.”

Tickets are €20/16/6 for the individual shows. A festival ticket is €55/45. Tickets are available from the Town Hall (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ); Opus II, High Street; and Music For Galway (091 - 705962, www.musicforgalway.ie ).

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